Jacob Kushner, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
November 15, 2011
Deportees from the U.S. to Haiti face myriad risks once in the country, including life-threatening cholera infections.
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The United States has deported more than 250 Haitians since January knowing that one in two will be jailed without charges in facilities so filthy they pose life-threatening health risks.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting has found that the Obama administration has not followed its own policy of seeking alternatives to deportation when there are serious medical and humanitarian concerns.
“What’s distinct about the situation in Haiti is that, unlike in other countries, people are immediately jailed, and the conditions in Haitian jails are condemned universally for violating human rights,” said Rebecca Sharpless of the University of Miami Law School Immigration Clinic, which helps immigrants appeal deportation orders.
The health risks for incarcerated deportees have increased significantly since October 2010, when a cholera outbreak began that has infected more than 470,000 people and killed 6,500, including prisoners.
International health experts say deportees in Haiti’s jails are at risk of contracting cholera, which can spread rapidly in overcrowded cells that lack clean water, soap and waste disposal. Once exposed to cholera, victims can die in less than 24 hours.
In January, 34-year-old deportee Wildrick Guerrier, whose Florida criminal record included convictions for battery and possession of a firearm, died from what doctors described as cholera-like symptoms two days after being released from the holding cell where he became ill — one of the same cells where deportees are incarcerated today.
Haitian authorities said they place approximately half of all deportees in jails to monitor what they term “serious criminals” — a largely arbitrary determination. These detentions, which have lasted as long as 11 days, violate Haitian law and United Nations treaties when deportees have not been charged with crimes in Haiti.
One day after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s capital, the U.S. government suspended deportations. Since then, the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have lobbied countries against deportations due to worsening conditions in Haiti.
“The crisis has not gone away,” said Michel Forst, the U.N. independent expert on human rights. “The most important help the international community can give to Haiti is to suspend the forced return of Haitians.”
Still, the Department of Homeland Security resumed deportations to Haiti on Jan. 20 — the same day the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning urging Americans to avoid Haiti due to health risks and lawlessness.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said deportations to Haiti resumed because a U.S. Supreme Court decision required detainees to be released after 180 days. That requirement, they said, would have placed “some detained Haitian nationals with significant criminal records into U.S. communities, which in turn poses a significant threat to the American public.”
Barbara Gonzalez, ICE’s press secretary, said in an email that the agency would “prioritize those who pose the greatest threat to the community.”
But FCIR found at least three deportees arriving in August and September were convicted of non-violent drug offenses, and three-quarters of all Haitian deportees in recent years had no criminal convictions at all, according to immigration records.
Detention — an unexpected homecoming
On the morning of Aug. 9, Franco Coby, a 24-year-old who was born in Haiti but grew up in Fort Myers, Fla., stepped off a plane in Port-au-Prince. He served nearly two years in a Florida prison for selling cocaine to a police informant, followed by four months in an immigration detention center. Haitian police loaded the 43 deportees on two white buses.
“To me, I’m in a foreign country even though it’s my birthplace,” said Frantz Fils-Aime, 29, a deportee from New York City who was convicted in 2008 of selling cocaine.
Florence Elie, the head of Haiti’s Citizen Protection Ministry, entered one of the buses and explained that deportees must report weekly as part of an 18-month probation — although no Haitian law allows for such preemptive supervision. She also addressed a rumor that circulated among the deportees: Some will be briefly put in “administrative retention,” meaning jail.
The next morning, Coby was at the Commissariat Petionville, a jail across the street from one of Haiti’s 900 post-earthquake displacement camps.
Haitian police placed Coby in one of the jail’s two cramped 20-by-10-foot cells, along with Filis-Aime, another New Yorker and deportees from Georgia and Michigan. Over the next seven days, they shared the cell with two to 15 others. At times, there wasn’t enough space for everyone to sleep on the bare concrete. A strong odor of feces wafted from the broken toilet in the back.
“I got bumps growing all over my skin, man. I don’t know if I’m allergic to something or what,” Coby said, after his first night in jail. “I been feeling sick; my stomach is tearing me up. Today I ate some rice, and it ran straight through me.”
Dr. John May, president of Health Through Walls, a North Miami nonprofit organization that works to improve jail conditions in foreign nations, travels frequently to Haiti. He visited the facility where Coby and the other deportees were held four weeks after their release.
“This is what we see everywhere,” May said. “Tuberculosis would thrive in this environment, certainly skin conditions like scabies, which we see often. And most seriously and concerning in Haiti recently is cholera, and it would just take one person with cholera here and it would quickly spread to the others.”
Cholera is spread primarily through feces and can result in severe vomiting and diarrhea. “Any situation that doesn’t have a lot of good hygiene is a great setting for the spread of cholera, which is what we have here,” May said.
When asked if such conditions in the jails pose life-threatening health risks, Chairman of Haiti’s Commission in Charge of Deportees Pierre Wilner Casseus said only that deportees who appear ill are released immediately.
Frederic Leconte, the commissioner of Haiti’s judicial police, said deportees are detained upon return to Haiti to allow the state time to understand each individual’s situation.
Haitian law does not allow someone to be jailed based on the possibility he may commit a crime in the future.
“This is what I fought against,” said Privat Precil, the director general of Haiti’s Ministry of Justice from 2002 to 2004. “It is just a police policy that is not legal under Haitian law.”
Reporter Jacob Kushner produced this story for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. His research was supported in part by the Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Investigative News Network.
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